DURHAM, N.C. — Inside the wooden doors of Morgan Imports, Christmas trees twinkle with holiday lights as the words of “Frosty the Snowman” linger in the air. The scent of Fraser fir wafts through the space, and the temperature is kept on the chilly side — customers don’t want to do Christmas shopping in 80-degree weather, after all.
“We’re trying to make it a magical experience; when you walk in it really puts you in the Christmas mood,” said Charles Vaughan, a manager for the furniture, garden and gifts shop. “When you target all of the senses, you are really able to get that ‘wow’ feeling.”
Retailers have long played Christmas music, knowing it not only inspires holiday cheer but can also impact how long and how often shoppers browse. But research within the past decade, including a new study by Washington State University researchers, has found that combining tunes with simple, store-appropriate smells could help retailers increase sales even more.
At ScentAir in Charlotte, N.C., which provides scents to businesses as a means of improving customer experience and marketing, demand for scent-related product increases at the holidays, said Ed Burke, the company’s marketing director.
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“If they’re putting a lot of effort into decorating for the holiday, what scent is crucial?” he said. The company consults with clients about what type of scent — simple or complex, holiday or signature — will best appeal to customers and make their store come across as authentic, he said.
Looking over related scientific research — and making sure their sounds, music and displays match their customer base — could help stores improve the shopping experience and draw in business, says Eric Spangenberg, dean of the college of business at Washington State University.
Spangenberg, who has worked with companies such as Nordstrom and J.C. Penney on sensory-retail research, has long studied how pairing scents with sounds impacts shopper behavior. In a 2003 study, he found that Christmas scents received better customer evaluations when paired with Christmas music.
A recent study that he helped author found that simple scents boost buying the most. For 18 days, the researchers watched more than 400 customers in a home-decorations store as the air held different scents — orange-basil blended with green tea, simple orange and no particular scent at all. The 100 who shopped with the simple scent spent 20 percent more money, the researchers found.
Though it’s tough to generalize across different markets and product segments, Spangenberg said the take-away is that using an appropriate scent could boost sales. At the holidays that can mean pine tree, spruce and cinnamon aromas, he said.
But while larger chains have the money and resources to develop playlists and signature scents based on the latest theories, many smaller retailers select their atmospherics based on intuition.
At Beleza, a fair-trade women’s accessory shop in Raleigh, co-owner Philip Dail and his wife use their intuition, and he believes it works. Dail helped choose the store’s cinnamon scent and festive display, complete with free red and green Hershey’s Kisses. The holiday music is provided by a local radio station. Customer reaction has always been positive, Dail said.
“They comment a lot about the smell, and the candy,” he said. “We are big Christmas people.”
Still, fiddling with the atmospherics of a store can have unintended consequences.
Spangenberg said pairing the wrong scents with poorly suited music or failing to keep the sensory experience consistent could scare away shoppers. Slower music encourages customers to spend more time mulling purchases.
And while Christmas music may be beloved by most, stores risk damaging the psyche of managers and employees who must toil for weeks hearing the same holiday hits repeated over and over and over again.
“Sometimes after you’ve heard the song for the millionth time, it’s like, ‘OK, I wish I could take a blowtorch to Frosty,’ ” said Vaughan from Morgan Imports.